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As we begin a new year, it’s important to take a step back and appreciate our achievements.
But it’s also critical to recognize our shortcomings – especially in public health, which affects everyone.
Here’s your reminder why racism is still a public health crisis in 2023, and how you can help support the health of all people.
What is Racism?
Racism is the discrimination or prejudice of others based on their race or ethnic group.
Racism has existed for thousands of years globally and is deeply rooted in our nation’s history.
Populations of color, such as Blacks and Latinos, often experience racism.
Racism against others can happen directly, such as denying someone a job because of their race, or indirectly, such as through structural policies that perpetuate racism, poor health, and poverty.
These structural policies, or systemic racism, is primarily our focus today.
Why is Racism a Public Health Crisis?
In 2017, researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health determined that racism is a public health crisis because it affects large amounts of people, threatens long-term health, and requires the adoption of large-scale solutions.
Other institutions agree.
The American Public Health Association recognizes racism as the driving force behind health disparities and a barrier to health equity.
How Does Racism Affect Health?
While racism has countless negative consequences, it has a particularly negative effect on public health.
Racism makes it harder for Latinos and other people of color to gain access to necessities for a healthy life, including quality healthcare and education, affordable housing, reliable transportation, employment, and nutritious food.
Not having as great of access to these necessities can have detrimental health effects, from infant mortality to life expectancy, and from chronic disease to infectious disease.
For example, due to health disparities during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Latina maternal mortality rate rose an alarming 74.2%, while White women’s maternal mortality rate rose just 17.2%.
Additionally, Latinos are vulnerable to healthcare worker implicit bias, which is a sub-conscious preference for White patients.
Implicit bias can worsen health disparities by not giving Latinos the most effective treatments or timely screening opportunities.
While it may seem that racism only impacts certain groups, it can have negative health impacts on entire communities, including White people.
Studies show that living in racist communities can cause adverse health outcomes, such as higher mortality rates and poorer overall health, in both White and minority groups.
Why Does Racism Affect Public Health?
Now that we’ve established the “how,” it’s time to explore the “why.”
Monica L. Wang, an associate professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health, and an adjunct associate professor of health policy and management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, offered some insight into why racism affects public health.
“One possibility lies in our social connectedness and trust in one another,” she said in an Emancipator video. “People who live in communities where racism is prevalent may be less likely to trust and bond with others. This lack of social connectedness can have negative health implications for the entire community, regardless of one’s race.”
For example, communities where racism is prevalent may have a harder time recovering from a natural disaster or hard economic time because racism can disrupt one’s relationships with community members.
No matter the why, a growing body of research points to racism as a public health crisis.
“This growing body of work tells us that the stakes are too high to ignore and can be a matter of life and death,” Wang said. “Racism is like air pollution, its particularly harmful for communities that experience higher levels – and it’s also harmful for the entire population.”
How Are People and Systems Addressing Racism?
In late 2020, public health and racial justice advocates started meeting monthly to understand and support the movement to declare racism a public health crisis.
Now, these advocates have formally become the Collaborative for Anti-Racism and Equity (CARE), a group of partner organizations including Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio.
CARE provides resources for everyday people and organizations to tackle health and racial inequities in their communities.
Another organization working to address racism in healthcare is the National Institute of Health (NIH), which has created the UNITE Initiative.
The UNITE initiative will help stimulate more research on minority health and health disparities. It will also improve workforce diversity so that Latino healthcare workers can thrive and patients of all backgrounds can receive better healthcare.
Individuals, such as Zo Mpofu and Dakisha Wesley, are also making waves. This duo worked together to declare racism a public health crisis and address several health and racial inequities in their county.
Get Your City to Declare Racism a Public Health Crisis!
Over 240 cities and counties are declaring racism a public health crisis and are improving health equity in communities of color.
San Antonio, Texas, home of Salud America!, is one of those places.
You can help, too.
Download the free Salud America! “Get Your City to Declare Racism a Public Health Crisis” Action Pack to get input from local advocates of color, start a conversation with local leaders, and build local support to declare racism a public health crisis and take action to change policies and practices.
The Action Pack was created by Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, director of the Salud America! Latino health equity program at UT Health San Antonio.
You can also help tackle healthcare worker and researcher implicit bias by downloading the free Salud America! Action Pack “Health Care Workers and Researchers: Find If You Have Implicit Bias and What to Do Next.”
“This Action Pack will help you see if you have implicit bias, learn from others who have overcome their own implicit bias, and encourage colleagues to learn about implicit bias, too,” said Dr. Ramirez, who created the Action Pack.